Black Americans had ample reason to believe in a brighter future as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated their hopes and prayers during his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech which he shared with the world in the culmination of events taking place at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
But just a few weeks later, the murders of four Black girls, killed in a bombing orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, reminded the nation that many citizens remained virulently opposed to racial equality and would not relinquish power before invoking more pain upon African Americans and their allies.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, former Vice President Joe Biden stood in the pulpit of that church, 56 years later, to remember the sacrifices of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and to applaud the dauntless spirit of a people who chose forgiveness over retribution as a means of bringing healing to their community and to all Americans.
And while Biden continues to lead a crowded field of Democratic candidates vying to unseat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, it remains to be seen whether his popularity among older, more conservative Black voters and his message will be enough to garner the support of younger African Americans as well as a significant percentage of whites and Latinos — a base that carried Barack Obama to victory in two presidential elections.
“We have had to struggle with before and after moments like this in the past, like Charlottesville just a few years ago when we again saw the torches, heard the chants and witnessed hatred on full display,” Biden said. “Our silence has been tantamount to complicity. I remember thinking as I watched scenes from Charlottesville that we remain entrenched in a battle for the soul of America.”
“Hate cannot be drowned out nor allowed to continue unchecked, allowed to remain hidden in the darkness. I am optimistic because I believe that despite the current Administration’s coddling of white supremacy, we are provided with yet another opportunity for Americans to decide who we really are and to prove what we really believe in,” Biden said, adding that the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist in 1963 “shook my generation to its core.”
Biden, while not mentioning Trump by name, said incidents like those in Charlottesville, Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Pittsburgh and El Paso served as the impetus for his entering the 2020 race for president, positioning himself as the candidate best qualified to help heal a nation still divided and in need of overcoming a past dominated by racism.
“The hatred displayed on that Sunday morning in 1963 is not dead,” he said. “White supremacy has been the antagonist of our highest ideals from before our founding. And as we all now realize, this violence does not live in the past.”
Still, Biden must contend with his own decisions made during his decades of public service, including, but not limited to, his former opposition to forced busing in education, his relationship with and connections to segregationist senators during his early years in Congress, his support of controversial legislation (1996) targeting “welfare reform,” his contributions to the writing and endorsement of the original 1994 crime bill, a record indicating leanings toward the War on Drugs and his “yea” vote for the War in Iraq.
In efforts to further extrapolate the complexities of Biden, on Sunday morning shortly after the completion of his televised speech from Birmingham, MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid (“AM Joy”) invited a panel to weigh in on the former vice president’s message, his candidacy and the opposition for which he must prepare, both from other candidates and from Trump, should he become the Democratic candidate for next year’s General Election.
Her guests included: former Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA), Biden’s longtime friend and colleague; Tiffany Cross, co-founder and managing editor, The Beat DC; and Jason Johnson, political editor, theroot.com and an MSNBC contributor — the latter two serving as frequent voices on Reid’s weekend news show.
Biden Maintains Edge, Not a Lock on Black Votes
Reid began her questions by posing whether Biden, often unable to effectively ward off the criticisms he’s has faced from his fellow Democratic contenders, has the muster needed to take on Trump, or any other GOP candidate, as November 2020 draws closer.
Rendell said Biden’s speech illustrated why he remains so liked by many Black voters and others across the U.S. and why he stands the best chance to defeat Trump.
“The thing he’s always done the best is being a great father and by extension a good man,” Rendell said. “I think people may be misleading voters about what Americans want in this era of unbridled white supremacy. Americans want to be brought back together again. Americans want someone who can help us recapture and be reminded of those central values that have made this country great.”
Reid acknowledged that despite the negatives of his past, Biden appears to have grown, coming a long way from some of his former views that seemed to echo the stance and voices of racist legislators. But, as she continued in her queries, is this so-called “more evolved Joe Biden” one who merits the unequivocal support of the Black voting collective?
Cross’s response did not suggest such an endorsement — at least not yet.
“Older Blacks, some that is, like Biden — they like him a lot,” Cross said. “But that’s not enough to make him the most electable candidate among those in the Democratic campaign. The voting electorate is much larger than that relatively small group. I’m unconvinced that he can bring younger voters of color to his side or persuade white voices more conservative in their beliefs to cast their ballot in his name at the polls.”
“For now, the polling numbers which favor Biden and the rush for the kind of nostalgic musings that he reflects could be viewed as nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecy articulated by a mainstream media that’s out of touch with the actual pulse of the nation,” she said.
Johnson, a self-professed “Generation Xer,” shared a perspective that, in Reid’s words, “most clearly articulated the wedge which exists between Blacks,” one side anxious to engage in reminiscent tales of an inherently-good America, the other more akin to Johnson in their demands for absolute change and a complete break from the past.
“I understand Biden’s message and his passion — no one wants to see the kind of violence take place again like that which happened in Birmingham decades ago or even more recently in Charlottesville,” he said. “But my generation wants someone that can bring real change for today and tomorrow. We aren’t interested in reflections about terrorist attacks that transpired 56 years ago.”
“I don’t care about the past. The past wasn’t so good. The cast wasn’t great. The past wasn’t something that I should feel a sense of nostalgia about. I want, and many other Black voters want, a president who’s going to change this country for the better — a president who’s clearly anti-racist.”
“Joe Biden may be that person but so far he has not proven that,” Johnson concluded.